23 February 2020
We’d been confined to barracks for a couple of days because of illness. I had a heavy cold (I’m keen to get rid of it before I get zapped into quarantine as a coronavirus suspect in Singapore or Sydney) while Michelle has had a tummy bug. We had to postpone our last lash at the sights until our final day – that we’d originally set aside for R&R before heading home.
Not that staying in the Shangri la Eros is irksome. (Incidentally, ‘Eros’ might indicate some exotic sexual services, but it is just the opposite. The management didn’t even want the male henna artist into our room to do Michelle’s hands because it may have been ‘improper’.) The hotel is set in ‘New’ Delhi among embassies, mansions, government buildings and big business. The streets are wide and tree lined. This part of town denies the poverty and squalor nearby and charges accordingly. For instance, Michelle was cautious about eating, and wanted a simple bowl of fried rice for dinner. I’d already eaten, so all I wanted was a drink. The Shang’s fried rice cost about $19 and my crème de cacao (which covered the bottom of the glass to a depth of 1mm, meaning that with one sip it was gone) cost $12. Total about $31. But by the time the add-ons had done their job the bill was $40. The government gobbles18% GST tax, there’s a 10% service charge, and to express its abhorrence of drunkenness, the government pops on a further 20% alcohol tax and calls it VAT. This does not reflect poorly upon the Shang but illustrates the actual cost of living it up in India.
India is not really a country that welcomes tourists, despite all the nice Taj Mahal images in travel agents’ windows. For a start, filling in a visa takes hours of research to find out where you grandfather went to school and the name of every country you have ever visited since you were born. Once that’s sorted, you might want to buy some rupees in Australia so you can at least tip helpers in India, but that is forbidden. If you are caught with rupees coming into India, they are seized and so are you. Then, if you are unfortunate enough to land in Delhi, the airport resembles a cattle saleyard and you are treated accordingly. After that, wherever you go somebody is imploring you to buy goods and services you don’t want, and demands you explain why you don’t want them, after which the price comes down and it all starts again.
In many ways is a wonderful place to visit, but you pay a price – and then a bit more.
Enough of my beefing. We had two more must-sees for our final day. The first was the Swaminarayan Hindu temple. Because it was opened as recently as 2005, visitors often dismiss it because it isn’t old and partially ruined. The fact is that visiting this temple is like visiting the Taj Mahal or the Red Fort just after they had been built. It has to be one of the most spectacular buildings in the world. It is made from sandstone and marble without using any steel or concrete. The huge stone blocks, all carved in intricate detail, are not held together with cement but limestone paste – that lasts much longer.
Security is over the top at the temple. No cameras, edibles, phones or electronics are allowed. Shoes off to go inside. In addition to the main temple there are vast gardens and other buildings – all in the name of Swaminarayan, 1781- 1830, whose followers believe he is God on earth, physically perpetuated by a succession of latter-day Swamis. The current one has millions of followers and millions of dollars from donations. Although all this is encompassed by the Hindu faith, it seems to stand alone, in that it worships one mystical man who professed to be Hindu.
The temple and its surrounds make up a thriving business as well, with catering and souvenirs. You can take a package ticket that includes a series of animated scenes of the Swami’s life as you move from theatre to theatre. The figures are quite lifelike as they blink and move their mouths, arms and hands. In the final scene the Swami delivers a message of peace, compassion and non-violence and then rises from his chair – like Abraham Lincoln does at Disneyland.
From there you take a theme park-like boat ride through caves that tell you what historically smart people the Indians are, claiming the discovery of most of the scientific, chemical and astronomical fundamentals that didn’t get ‘reinvented’ by the West for a further century or more. About he only invention not claimed was the wheel. I thought we may have gone down a steep slide and a splash to finish, but no, this was a gentle cultural experience and we clambered out of the boat while the next two thousand people waiting to board shuffled forward.
Or last stop was the Bahai temple. I had seen it previously and wanted to share it with Michelle, but when we saw a queue that would take an hour to reach security and then another hour to wait for a ten minute peep inside we decided to take a picture through the fence and leave it at that. It certainly is an impressive building that might have been called ‘The Sydney Lotus House.’
On the way back in the jerky, crawling Sunday traffic, our guide expounded the benefits of
cow shit. Apart from the blessing imparted from it, being holy, it is dried and burned as household fuel, emitting a fetching and purifying odour. Cow’s urine is even more highly regarded, since it can be refined for many medicinal uses, including some anti-cancer properties. The main problem is in collecting it. You have to follow the cow around with a bucket and then be nimble enough to place it in the catchment area when the cow gets that certain look on its face.
So that’s INJAR for this time. As I’ve said before, these are memories for Michelle (tour companion extraordinaire) and me, but we’re happy to share them.